House panel backs on-line access

The House Rules Committee is supporting a resolution sponsored by Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.) that would require House committees to provide timely on-line access to hearing transcripts, bills, amendments, votes, rules and other information via the Internet.

At a committee hearing last week, White said he proposed the legislation earlier this month in order to enable Congress to "use this new technology to decentralize our government and let our constituents know what Congress is doing.

"By making sure that people in Silverdale, Wash., can access information at the same time that a high-paid lobbyist on Capitol Hill can get it - then we are moving in the right direction," White said.

White added that the resolution also would improve the efficiency of "chaotic" House computer systems by establishing standards for file formats and databases.

A member of White's staff said Rules Committee members hope that other committees will adopt the resolution voluntarily and that White wanted to give them a chance to move on his recommendations at their own pace. But he added that White and his co-sponsors might put the resolution up for a vote in the opening session of the new House in January.

Members of the Rules Committee agreed on the merits of the resolution, the staff member said, and that it was unlikely to encounter much opposition in the House, with the possible exception of the Appropriations Committee.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Reps. David Dreier (R-Calif.), Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), Charles Bass (R-N.H.) and Dan Frisa (R-N.Y.).

White said the resolution was based upon his work with the House Task Force on Committee Review, which reported this month on various ways that House committees could reform their operations, procedures and staffing. In its report, the task force recommended that the Clerk of the House establish a central database of official documents, develop universal data elements for those documents and enforce standards to assist committees in their public dissemination.

The task force also asked the Rules Committee to determine changes needed to facilitate electronic distribution of congressional information to the public no later than Jan. 3, 1997.

Gary Ruskin, director of the Congressional Accountability Project, said White's resolution would provide "a substantial improvement over what we have now" but expressed concern that it would not be adopted unless lawmakers pushed hard.

Early this month, Ruskin sent a letter to House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Dreier asking them to increase on-line public access to congressional information. The letter was signed by 721 private individuals and organizations, including activists, professors, journalists and librarians.

* * * * *

Resolved

House committees and subcommittees would be required to post on-line:

* Prints of bills within five days of introduction or distribution for mark-up.

* Amendments and transcripts for hearings and committee mark-ups; prepared statements when submitted.

* Schedules and notices when distributed.

* Committee rules when approved or amended.

* Oversight plans and activity reports.

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